So You Think Social Conservatives Can't Dance? They Really Can.

Posted: Aug 21, 2006 12:02 AM

Guess what I found out this week? Social conservatives can dance.

No, really, they can. I’ve been a big fan of “So You Think You Can Dance” this summer—a sort of “American Idol” for American dancers. I first noticed the phenomenon early in the season when one of the top 20 dancers, Benji, explained that he had taken a two-year hiatus from dancing to do his Mormon mission. When he announced the reason for his break from dance, the in-studio audience for the live show cheered, loudly.

Benji and his cousin Heidi, also among the top 20, had been dancing together competitively since childhood. They danced swing and ballroom by trade, but the show required them to do it all—mambos, waltzes, Broadway, hip-hop and crunk.

Benji and Heidi, along with two other top-20 Latter Day Saints finalists, did it all, and did it well. It paid off for the cousins, who both ended up in the top-four finalist group. Benji, my personal favorite, took the show’s crown home with him, and split the $100,000 prize with his cousin, as agreed upon before the show.

I didn’t know the LDS impact on “So You Think You Can Dance” was so strong until after the season had ended, and a couple of newspapers took note. But regardless of the number of religious dancers on the show, I had noticed that it had a charming innocence about it.

“So You Think You Can Dance” and “American Idol” both have a sort of throw-back, variety-show vibe about them that the American public obviously responds to. “American Idol” earns legendarily high ratings with its mix of small-town-makes-good stories and good, old-fashioned renditions of musical classics.

“Idol” introduces new, young audiences to quality songs of days gone by. Where else would you catch a nation of teeny-boppers hanging on every word of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”?

“So You Think You Can Dance” does the same, introducing teens and 20-somethings to the joys of watching a well-danced foxtrot, waltz, or paso doble. I’m betting rentals of Fred and Ginger movies and Broadway classics are way up right about now, and so much the better. It’s great entertainment, and you don’t have to worry about how old your kids are before you sit down to watch it.

Sure, each show has the requisite amount of sex appeal and skimpy clothing needed to survive in today’s entertainment environment, but in both cases, the talent overshadows the sex, which is much more than can be said for the “Fear Factors” and “Real Worlds” of the entertainment universe.

In other news for conservative rug-cutting, MSNBC talk host Tucker Carlson will make his debut this fall on “Dancing With the Stars,” yet another talent reality show that harkens back to the days of Gene Kelly.

Carlson is, undoubtedly, no Gene Kelly. That’s the point of “Dancing With the Stars”—to take well-known novices, pair them with ballroom experts, and turn them into performers. But I hope the bow-tied pundit will make a good showing. Exposure on the top-rated show, however clumsy, will surely up his Nielsen numbers on MSNBC.

The innocent premise of shows like these was briefly tinged by controversy last season when one of the professional skaters on "Skating With Celebrities" left his wife for celebrity partner, Kristy Swanson of early-90s, Luke-Kelly-charming, vampire-slaying fame. But last year’s "Dancing With the Stars" winner, Drew Lachey (brother to Nick of Nick and Jessica) made up for it by taking the title just weeks before his beaming young wife, always in the audience, delivered their first daughter.

Reality shows aren’t everyone’s thing, but I would argue that shows like “So You Think You Can Dance,” “American Idol,” and to a lesser extent “Dancing With the Stars” more accurately reflect a cross-section of the American public than most of the scripted shows TV has to offer. When you’re dealing with reality TV shows of this nature, talent and genuine likeability often win out over other factors.

Reality TV gives a pair of Mormon cousins a shot with the audience they wouldn’t have had had a screen-writer scripted their characters as the predictable, close-minded rubes the entertainment industry often makes religious Americans into. It gives evangelical Gospel singers a chance to simultaneously praise Jesus for their success and form close friendships with their many-hued, many-faithed fellow contestants. From a story on “So You Think You Can Dance”:

Schwimmer says being on the show has allowed him to "erase a lot of stigmas about Mormons. I'm not really normal, but I've been able to show people that we Mormons as a whole are pretty normal people who do love to dance."

And, America loves it.

Reality TV isn’t real life, of course, but it sometimes allows its contestants to be real in a very refreshing way. Keep it in mind the next time you settle in to be entertained by a group of real Americans. The country has much talent to offer, from all walks of life, and I highly recommend it, even for your kids.

Correction: In an earlier version of this column I mistakenly noted that Kristy Swanson appeared on "Dancing With the Stars." She did not. She was on "Skating With Celebrities," and I am clearly falling victim to the sheer number of reality talent shows I watch. The mistake has been corrected. Sorry about that.